Eleni Gabre-Madhin on Why Emotional Intelligence is at the Heart of her New Approach to Leadership

Dr. Eleni Gabre-Madhin is one of Ethiopia's most high profile business leaders. She is most well known for being the founder and former CEO of the highly acclaimed Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) from 2008 to late 2012, successfully trading $1.2 billion annually after 3 years of operation. After leaving ECX she went on to found eleni LLC, Africa’s leader in designing, building, and supporting the operations of commodity exchange eco-systems in frontier markets. More recently she has turned her attention to Ethiopia's youth, as the founder and chief executive of blueMoon, Ethiopia’s first youth agribusiness/agritech incubator and seed investor. 

She is also a globally recognized thought leader and was recognized as Devex’ Top 5 Women Global Women of Impact on Development in April 2016 and Africa's Top Woman Pioneer, Innovator & Entrepreneur of 2015 by the Wharton Business School Africa Club. She was named among the 125 Global Women of Impact by Newsweek in April 2013, among 100 Most Influential Africans by New African in 2012, and received the prestigious Yara Prize for Agricultural Transformation in Africa and the African Banker Icon Award, both in 2012. 

Passing on her 'Mindset of Mentors' to The Africa List

As part of a CEO Night with The Africa List community in Ethiopia, Eleni answered questions from the members about the leadership practices she has cultivated along her leadership journey. This was part of a quarterly series of ‘CEO Nights’ under the theme of unpacking the 'Mindset of Mentors' hosted by The Africa List where a range of senior CEOs and Chairs from across Africa spend time with the community of 'next-in-line CEOs' that make up The Africa List community where they unpack what it really takes to make it to the top. We only run 'CEO Nights' once a year so to make the interactions with the CEOs in attendance as structured and useful as possible, a small group of CEOs hosted breakout sessions, answering questions posed by the members on their 'CEO Life Hacks' that covered a range of topics including productivity, leadership and management strategies and their personal reflections. 


Eleni describes herself as Blue Moon's 'Chief Happiness Officer', idea entrepreneur and adventurer of life, which is perhaps why she was happy to be so open about the ups and downs of her leadership journey so far, and how her past mistakes have set her up to be an even better leader to her team. 

Here are some of our favourite pieces of advice that Eleni shared on the night: 

How do you schedule your time for peak performance?

I spend the first two hours on correspondence so that people have a reply from me within 24 hours. After that, I don’t go back to e-mail other than a brief check-in. Another thing I do is that I’ve been using an app called Calendly which is a way that people can schedule time into your calendar automatically. It saves hours of people trying to get in touch with me, and I used to spend a lot of time in meetings or trying to schedule meetings. Now, I pre-set my available times into slots of 15 or 30 minutes into Calendly which people can book into. I pretty much only do 15 minute meetings now which has made me much more productive. I set a timer at the start of every meeting which I tell people upfront. Otherwise someone says can we meet, and then hours go by. The other thing is that I don’t do conceptual things during the day. Thinking, writing papers, strategizing, putting together a meeting, I do that between 10pm-1am. That’s my time - 2am is usually when I go to sleep. That’s kind of crazy, but it’s how I work so far.

What have you learned as a CEO that you wish you had known before?

When I look back I wish I was more emotionally intelligent earlier in my career. I wish I’d thought about that but I was thinking only of performance and technical skills. At the time I didn’t realise all the skills that come with being more emotionally intelligent and I’ve learned the hard way. People tend to assume that women will be more emotional, but my husband is more emotionally intelligent than I am. I do feel that emotional intelligence is an important thing we miss in all the education we get. Almost every mistake I made in management in the last few years had something to do with a lack of empathy, not picking up signals, not reading situations enough, sending an e-mail that came across the wrong way. The one thing I’ve changed is the way I do e-mail. You can make so many mistakes because there’s no one on the other side when you write e-mails. I would have avoided some dramatic things if I wasn’t so impatient, so I’m trying now to put them aside for 24 hours. 

How do you encourage a member of your team who is fearful or insecure about a new project?

It’s about keeping communication channels open. I want someone to be able to call me in the middle of the night because I don’t want them to feel isolated. Being accessible is important as a leader. If you’re accessible over lunch, walking somewhere, or going on a walk together then you’re accessible at crisis time. Making sure people feel that they can reach out is something I must work on. By nature, I’m very bubbly and gregarious but emotionally I have a shell around me so people don’t always feel that they can reach out. I’m trying to be more accessible.

What would you go back and tell your 30-year old self?

My 30-year-old self was very driven and aggressive, a ‘going to conquer the world’ person. Maybe I’d tell her to balance it out more - that there’s more to life than just winning. I’d tell her to be vulnerable.

What is one trait that you’ve seen derail the most leaders?

Narcissism. Power is intoxicating and after a while you swallow your own Kool-Aid. You’re the person at the head of something, so you think the world kind of revolves around you. It happens to a lot of people. It’s an aspect of emotional intelligence which is most damaging, when you can’t see the word outside of yourself. A lot of leaders fall into that trap. It makes the people in your team disheartened, turned off and you lose their trust.

What’s something you do that others might think is crazy?

Well, people kind of think what I’m doing right now is crazy. Spending all my time and energy on young people I want to invest in through Blue Moon, Ethiopia's first youth agribusiness incubator. I spend a lot of my time physically and financially investing in them on an almost full-time basis.

What is the best advice you’ve heard?

Listening. And I don’t mean listening to respond or come back and win the argument, but listening in an active way to understand and make the other person feel heard. It’s about you understanding where other people are coming from. That’s not something we’re trained consciously to think about, but I think the most successful leaders have the ability to listen and really make that a priority. It helps you get the best from the people you work with.

Being accessible is important as a leader. If you’re accessible over lunch, or going on a walk together, then you’re accessible at crisis time.

What do you spend most of your time thinking about daily?

What’s next – the next big fun challenge. And then how to keep a team together – how can I be a better team player and motivator, and keep people engaged. My nature is very passionate and aggressive, very driven. It’s so easy to leave people behind and so really balancing that sensitivity to make sure I’m not sprinting on my own and my team goes, ‘Oh, here she goes again…’

Who are you, beyond all your accolades?

I think I’m a very simple person. I don’t like to go out much, I hang out at home. I appear to be very social and outgoing but I’m a very private person, I read, hang out with my kids, and I’m also a person of faith. That doesn’t come out so much publicly, but it’s an important part of who I am.

What message would you give someone just starting their career?

I have children headed to college and my advice to them always is to start something, no matter what field you’re in. It doesn’t have to be the primary occupation, but learn to sell, learn to convince people. Do something that involves entrepreneurship. The second advice is go digital. I don’t care what it is. Even if you're majoring in art, have a digital side to what you do. That’s something we all have to have at this point.

How do you run your meetings?

Something I’ve been doing more in the last year or so is rotating the chair or moderator. One of the ways I’m trying to evolve is not running things, letting meetings be run by others which gives them a sense of ownership and a different perspective to whatever we’re trying to do.

How do you encourage creative thinking and idea sharing in your team?

My current company is all about creativity and idea sharing and thinking outside the box. The first principle is the idea that there’s no one answer and no wrong answer. I try and create that safe space where people can have crazy ideas and suggestions and just saying, ‘Hey, this is what I think’. It’s something we have to work on, because as a leader you know what the right answer is so it’s a hard thing to let others give suggestions. You are sure of the right thing. To be able to create that opportunity and express it, that’s really a process, and it’s hard.

What is your learning ritual to keep you at the forefront?

I read and listen to podcasts – but the thing I do the most is I ask people what they think about my next crazy idea. It just happens with my aunts at lunch, or at home with my son and my husband. I can’t stop talking about things I’m excited about, and in that process people tell you things, and you find out about things, it snowballs. By nature I don’t keep things in. I’m out there, getting reactions and learning. That’s my strength.

To find out more about The Africa List community in Ethiopia, please visit the Ethiopia country page here. 

For more information about The Africa List, please visit our main site www.theafricalist.com

Stay in touch with Eleni on her Twitter: @EleniGabre


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